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Why “No Comment” is the Worst Thing You Can Say

By: Guest | March 14, 2011 | 
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Esther Steinfeld is the public relations manager for Blinds.com, the premier online retailer of custom window treatments.

Recall a few weeks back when Spin Sucks featured a post called “How ‘No Comment’ Has Edelman in Trouble.” It revealed how both Edelman and Best Buy dropped the ball on having someone on-hand and well-versed to discuss the new video program they were launching. Though the situation could have been handled far better than it was, and it is incumbent on large organizations either giving their people talking points or appoint a spokesperson early on, I was expecting a different article than the one to which I clicked through. I was expecting something more like the one you’re about to read.

As the public relations manager for Blinds.com, I don’t often get a chance to use my crisis communications skills like I would were I working for Nestle or Toyota in the last few years. Sure, window treatment-related emergencies present themselves (“I can’t sleep, it’s too bright in my bedroom!” and “We have odd-shaped windows!”), but as an organization, we don’t often find ourselves in controversial situations. That changed one day after one of the national radio hosts we advertise with made salacious comments live on-air. Members of the media were up in arms, demanding this person’s resignation, and because of our association to the show, we were caught in the middle. I began receiving hateful emails, demanding we revoke sponsorship. I was less than surprised to receive a voicemail from the head writer for an online publication/activist group that “reports” on matters such as this. He just wanted a quote.

Hearken back to freshman English. Your professor asks you to write a dissertation on some abstruse Shakespeare reference, and you spend the next twenty, double-spaced pages scraping together every possible piece of evidence that supports the claim you’ve come up with. Speaking to someone who has an agenda to further is sort of like that. He will use what you say to support his claims, even if you do not mean it the way he’s spliced together.

Knowing this, I thought, “Hey! My first ‘No comment’ moment!” He sounded like a nice enough fellow, and I thought, “Why not call him back?”

Before doing so, I consulted a friend and former boss of mine who works with the Ammerman Experience, an organization that specializes in media training and communications. His advice to me:

“NEVER, EVER SAY ‘NO COMMENT.'”

It seems obvious after the fact, but “no comment” is, in and of itself, a comment. By not answering the questions, you’re answering. You can also spend all the time in the world crafting a statement, but some people will believe what they want to believe if they’re trying to make an example out of you, and it is often better not to pick up the phone in the first place.

I never did return that writer’s call. I knew what he wanted from me: Something he could use in his article to help him further the boycott he was trying to incite against the sponsors of this host. I did get a Google alert soon after for one of many articles this man wrote on the topic. It featured innocuous quotes from other retailers which, in the context of the story, seemed scandalous. And about Blinds.com? “Blinds.com could not be reached for comment.” Very quickly, the situation blew over, as newer, juicier scandals presented themselves to the world.

While I’m definitely not advocating for hiding from the press when you’re in a tough situation, there is merit to taking the high road when you simply can never win and will never be given a fair shot to explain the situation. By doing so, we avoided making a bad situation worse. There is a big difference between talking to a reporter who’s trying to uncover the truth and talking to someone like this. You don’t have to talk to everyone.

Maybe next time when someone calls me about something controversial, I’ll just answer a completely different question than the one I’ve been asked, though I have to give credit to Edelman for that strategy.

Esther Steinfeld is the public relations manager for Blinds.com, the premier online retailer of custom window treatments. Esther specializes in online PR and blogs about home décor trends at The Finishing Touch. Blinds.com currently ranks #206 on the Internet Retailer 500 and holds the title American Marketing Association Marketer of the Year.

11 comments
AngelaRMyers
AngelaRMyers

Although this strategy is not considered to be hiding from the press, what is a way you can handle this situation (and others like it) without saying "no comment" or not contacting the reporter all together? You mentioned picking and choosing who you will talk to in order to get your side across to the press, but what if you are stuck in a situation where you are forced to make a public statement?

AmandaOleson
AmandaOleson

Esther,

I'm glad you shared this experience. However, I think it's important to point out that being quoted as saying "No Comment" and "was not able to be reached for comment" are two different things, and are generally perceived very differently in the public eye. Publicly stating that you have no comment or answering a question by talking about something else entirely (which I like to call a Brett Favre Move, btw) is often perceived as having something to hide in regards to the situation. At least for me, when I hear "could not be reached for comment" implies that the reporter was on a tight deadline, and not all of their calls/inquiries could be returned by press time. In the circumstance you've described here, I think you did what you should have. As an advertiser on the program, you don't control the editorial content provided by the host. Giving a "no comment" would have implied that blinds.com somehow influenced the opinion of said salacious host, at least in my head.

Thanks for sharing!

Amanda Oleson

RichBecker
RichBecker

Esther,

Good advice overall, but the nuances are important and never is hefty word. Saying "no comment" within a context works well enough. For example, if someone is advised to say no comment as instructed by the authorities. There are maybe five or ten times it's acceptable.

One done side to blowing some people off, though. Hope you never need something from them, ever. It will stick in a writer's mind much longer than any other comment.

Best,

Rich

aurelius_Tjin
aurelius_Tjin

No Comment. :)) Great Post! Thanks for the information and ideas you shared. :) Keep on posting.

jonbarilone
jonbarilone

Thanks for sharing that insight, Esther! I think this can be especially useful for anyone tasked with controlling a company's social media assets.

I used to think that "no comment" was an acceptable, noncommittal response when you didn't have a clear answer. A couple weeks ago, I thumbed through my company's Crisis Communication handbook and found the same advice you've shared here. Much better to be a little more verbose but basically say the same thing?

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

Awesome guest post Esther!

This is a very tricky situation you had. One the one hand obviously Blinds.com was not endorsing the comments themselves. And we do have short memories. The newspapers and magazines are filled with no comments. How many to we remember where we were aghast when we read 'we called and no one could be reached'. We note them here and now. Like when a Public figure gets in trouble. But really it takes a Tiger Woods event for us to remember. But usually no comments are specifically for when a lawsuit can be affected. 'Did you kill your wife?' uhm....'Did you embezzle that money?' uhm.....

I personally do not associate advertisers with hosts. I think the connection is overstated by 1000%. Pick a show or an event and unless the brand has their name on the event (the Dew Tour or Tostitos Orange Bowl) I bet no one can name sponsors. But we all know brands often run scared when really all they are trying to do is advertise.

Faryna
Faryna

Esther:

I can appreciate how a strategy of non-confrontation appeals to you. It is a postponement. And, I suppose, some PR challenges, can be avoided by a postponement that gets you past an issue that is quickly forgotten.

However, I find postponement used too liberally, too often. At the corporate level. Or personal level. I prefer to see engagement, resolution, and relationship.

EstherSteinfeld
EstherSteinfeld

@RichBecker True. If it had been a reputable publication, I wouldn't have taken the same approach. What counts for journalism in this day and age is a judgment call.

EstherSteinfeld
EstherSteinfeld

@HowieG Thanks for your comment! I don't associated hosts with the advertisers either, but many people do. We advertise on all types of shows, on all sides of the political spectrum as well as on entertainment and financial programming. People don't often bother to ask about that when they're looking for a fight :)

EstherSteinfeld
EstherSteinfeld

@Faryna In an ideal world, every interaction would end in satisfactory resolution (for both sides) followed by a relationship, but experience has taught me that is simply impossible sometimes.

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